Clint's never been very good with patience, but he's great at waiting. Pretty much had to be since childhood: the road between towns, the hours between setting up the tent and starting the show, the police deciding he's had enough of a scare and is too young to be kept overnight (again). Waiting for SHIELD to decide what to do with him, waiting for the next mission, waiting to take the shot. These days, it seems that waiting to take the damn shot is all he ever does, more's the pity. He's great at waiting, but he's awesome at running the game.
He's got a lot more to offer than just his skills as a sniper, but after that thing in Budapest, SHIELD rarely lets him out to play on his own.
He still maintains that it'd have been a damn shame to kill her, though. For all he keeps hearing about 'Agent Romanoff's exploits' and how they're all his fault, SHIELD tends to agree. It had been an interesting mission, at least.
This mission is dead in the water. It was a mess right from the start, with a handler too set in his ways and a team so used to working with each other they hadn't really known what to do with him. The job was to infiltrate a cruise ship, steal a flash drive from a third-rate arms dealer with possible connections to HYDRA and get the fuck out of there, preferably unnoticed. Now his handler's dead, the team is dead, and Clint's stuck above the amphitheater in one of the few CCTV blind spots, trying to figure out a way to complete the mission and not get shot in the process. At least he's still got his bow.
He's got a few ideas, but since all of them involve jumping overboard at some point, he's not too keen on leaving the planning stage just yet. Wait for an opening. Wait for inspiration. Wait for them to spot him and take him down. Fuck.
If he can get past the boardwalk, through the central park, across the mini-golf course, over the fence and down six levels along the front hull, he might make it to the helipad. Hot-wiring a chopper isn't hard, but…
But if Clint runs, six people will have died with nothing to show for it. He's too stubborn to let that happen.
So, yeah. He needs a plan, and he needs it now.
His radio clicks once. His heart jumps and picks up speed, but he doesn't flinch, doesn't stop watching the amphitheater below.
"Talk to me, Barton." It's a voice he's never heard before. Not their mark or one of his cronies – Clint's heard enough of them through the active team channels before they cut out – but that doesn't mean it's a friendly.
"Who are you?" he murmurs, gaze flicking across the far-too-open spaces below him. A trickle of sweat is inching its way down his nose. This could be a trap. Cole knows he's still on the ship, but if he and his goons want to play cat and mouse they're going to have to do a lot better than this. Clint doesn't play well with others even when he's reasonably sure they're not meant to stab him in the back. If this is a trap, it's a bad one.
"This is Agent Coulson. Your code is Red Iowa Echo Seven Oakley. Give me your status."
Clint licks his lips. It's the right code and the guy's voice is calm as you please. Self-assured. But Clint's handler knew both the code and the most common SHIELD frequencies. Clint's grip tightens around the bow. He hasn't nocked an arrow yet.
Maybe he should.
"How do I know you're on my side?" Even as he asks it, Clint knows the answer won't matter. There's no way for this guy to identify himself that Clint's handler couldn't have given up under torture. He's nowhere near far enough up the ladder to know any of the truly meaningful codes. The mission's been compromised, and all that's left for him to do is decide if he wants to trust this guy or not.
He really doesn't.
"You'll have to take my word for it," Coulson says, and there's amusement in his voice, like he knows Clint is screwed either way. Clint lets out a slow breath.
"Strike team's down," he mutters. It's clean information, not giving up anything the enemy doesn't know. Not yet. "Perez is dead. Cole still has the flash drive. We're fifteen hours away from the next port."
"Are you hurt?"
"No." He never got the opportunity to make a difference. Fuck Perez and his idiotic plan, and fuck Clint for going along with it. He might as well have shot the team himself. Would have been kinder, too.
There's a short pause.
"We still have another operative on board," Coulson says casually, like he's announcing there'll be drinks on the pool deck in fifteen minutes. "We'll engineer a distraction. I will talk you through the decks to Cole's location. Get the drive, then get to the helipad. You'll be picked up from there. What's your position?"
Clint grimaces. This is it, then. He shifts his weight, pulls an arrow from its quiver, and lines it up.
If they try to take him down, he won't be selling himself cheap.
He takes a breath, tries to stay calm. "Amphitheater."
Another pause. A man in a waiter's uniform ambles along the empty boardwalk, checks for tourists wanting a drink. He walks in and out of Clint's line of sight, never once looking up. Clint's heart is pounding like crazy, flooding his whole body with a wave of adrenalin, but his grip on the bow is steady. He breathes in, holds, breathes out again.
The fire alarm goes off.
Clint blinks. "Fake fire alarm? That's your distraction?" he asks, biting back a laugh because, what the hell?
"Sometimes it's best to stick with the classics." Coulson sounds almost cheerful. "Move it, Barton. You want to get down two levels. Avoid the dining rooms."
"Yes, sir," Clint says, grinning now. Coulson seems almost crazy enough to get Clint off this damn ship after all. There's smoke drifting from the floating bar. People are starting to scream.
Clint can work with that.
The engines actually do catch fire. Clint improvises, gets the flash drive, and saves the day.
What can he say? He's just that good.
"Still waiting for you to make the call, ma'am." Clint's being obnoxious, he knows it. But he's freezing his ass off, there's a storm front coming up that's probably bringing more snow, and the mark's been sipping something hot straight from the thermos for the past ten minutes, right in Clint's line of sight.
"Negative, Hawkeye." Benko sounds smug, sitting in her nice, warm surveillance van. It's her first mission as a handler and she's doing well enough, but she's trying too hard to cement her authority. Clint's got no problem with authority, unless it's the kind that tries to fuck him over. Benko's not trying to fuck him over, but she's dragging this out too long for no good reason.
"I never got why it's 'positive' and 'negative,'" Clint says. He wonders if she's taken into account that once he starts to shiver, his aim will be for shit. Maybe he can annoy her into giving the order, just to shut him up. "What's wrong with 'yes' and 'no'? If the transmission craps out, '-tive' will give you nothing. There's no mistaking 'yes' for 'no' even if you hear only half of it."
"Hawkeye, when did I give you permission to chatter?" Not so smug anymore. Clint smiles.
"I'm cold, ma'am. Talking to you warms my heart."
He hears Benko draw in a breath, but another voice cuts her off. "Agent Benko, please don't engage. Barton, how long until your aim is compromised?"
It takes Clint a moment to place that voice, but then he does. Crazy Coulson. From the cruise ship. Fun times.
"Got another six minutes at least, sir." He grins. "Didn't know you were going to join us."
"I'm not," Coulson says, and he sounds just as calm as last time. "We need you on another mission, so please wrap this one up."
"Yes, sir," Benko says, so Coulson obviously outranks her. Clint is pretty sure that Coulson was talking to him, not her, but he still asks, "Does that mean I can finally take the shot?"
"Positive," Coulson says, and there's that amusement again. Clint smirks, lines up the shot, fires. The mark drops, hot liquid splashing from the thermos, steaming in the cold air.
Man, he wants a coffee.
"And here I thought we had an understanding, sir," he says with a fake pout as he packs up his gear and walks to the side of the roof. There's an iron ladder that's going to be cold as hell. He'll have to take it the fast way unless he wants to court frost bite after all.
"Negative." And there's a smirk in Coulson's voice now. Clint fumbles his grip as he slides down the ladder, hisses as his fingers smack against a rung.
Fuck. Open comm channel, perfect. He's making a really good impression today. "Nothing. Sir."
It's just that handlers don't joke with him. He likes his job, believes in what SHIELD tries to do, but he's always been on the fringes of that organization. He likes to be on the fringes, with no one to worry about but himself (and Nat, but that's his own damn fault), and certainly no one to pick up a running joke.
"Am I taking your word for that?"
Seems Coulson didn't get that memo.
"Sir," Clint says, more than ready for this conversation to be over as he slides the rest of the way down. His feet thump on the frozen ground. Coulson just hums, like he's already moved on to more important things.
Doesn't matter, Clint tells himself as he tries to shake the sting from his fingers. He's a senior agent. You're one asset. This is probably the last you'll ever hear from him.
And if he regrets that, just a little, then that's his own business.
Coulson, though, doesn't seem to be aware that he's not supposed to be more than a fond memory of that one time they nearly sank a cruise ship together. He guides Clint through an assassination in Latakia (Syria), busting a HYDRA base in Vargem Bonita (Brazil), and various thefts in Port Harcourt (Nigeria), Alice Springs (Australia) and New Jersey (wtf). He's also the one in charge of a spectacularly ambitious sabotage mission in Khujand that almost goes wrong half a dozen times in increasingly fucked-up ways and ends with Clint laughing like a maniac while Natasha calmly picks multicolored mosaic tiles out of her hair.
Coulson's the only one who isn't afraid to pair Clint with Natasha and watch the fireworks go off. It's kind of awesome.
Coulson's kind of awesome, actually. He always has good intel, is completely prepared to either ignore Clint's bored running commentary or answer in such a deadpan way that half the other agents never notice he just made a joke, and he's willing to trust that Clint knows what the fuck he's doing.
"You like him," Natasha says, looking way more interested in this discovery than in the mission paperwork they're supposed to be filling out.
"So?" That comes out way too defensive. Clint grimaces and throws her an apologetic look.
"You don't like handlers." She smirks and taps him lightly with her pen. "You don't like anyone except for me."
"Yeah, well, don't get jealous," he mutters, the tips of his ears possibly a little warmer than they should be, but she laughs and so he has to smile.
He has nightmares, sometimes, where he lets the arrow fly and she jerks and whatever laughter she might have left dies with her.
Those are the nights he doesn't even try to go back to sleep.
She lets him fill out a few lines before she says, "Didn't think he'd be your type."
"It's not like that," he says automatically. Then the implication sinks in and he jerks his head up without really meaning to. "Wait, you've met him?"
Her eyes widen.
"You haven't!" she says, a delighted smile spreading across her face, and he doesn't know where exactly his life went wrong, but if a former Soviet super-spy gets her kicks out of his non-existent love life he must have fucked up somewhere. "Oh, Clint."
"What? There's always someone else running the debrief, but it's not like-" He jabs his pen at her when she laughs. "You know I'm not-" and she's still laughing at him. Fuck it. Clint scowls at her, but he knows when he's lost. "Okay, fine. What does he look like, anyway?"
"Oh, no, no." Her eyes are dancing, and he wishes he didn't love her so much, wishes he loved her more, wishes they loved each other differently so they'd make at least a little bit of sense. "I don't want to ruin the suspense."
"There is no suspense." He twirls his pen between his fingers for a moment and then leans back over his paperwork. Look how completely I'm ignoring you. "I don't care."
"I believe you," she says, bumping her foot against his leg. You're so full of shit. "And I bet you're not going to ask anyone else about him, either."
"Damn straight I'm not."
She snorts. He kicks her. She flicks her pen at him and he throws his paperwork into her face. The table skids across the floor as she kicks it at him but he's already moving, and by the time someone comes to see what the ruckus is about they've broken both their chairs and forgotten all about Coulson.
Except he never really 'forgets' about Coulson.
For one thing, Coulson has the best missions. Not every interesting mission is run by Coulson, of course, but if he's in charge, Clint can be certain he won't be bored (or the redundant backup who just sits around and twiddles his thumbs).
For another, obviously Clint has never learned to leave well enough alone and so he does ask around, just like Natasha knew he would. He's already decided to call her Nat again until she threatens to break his face, just for knowing him so damn well.
He tries not to think about the last time someone knew him that well. Thinking about Barney still… smarts.
Anyway, he does ask around, and maybe it's that he's asking covertly ('cause he isn't an idiot) or maybe it's that someone's fucking with him, but the answers he gets actively contradict each other. After five months, what he's got is:
- Coulson is a total douchebag who wouldn't know the business end of a gun if it sat him down to talk about tax returns.
- Coulson is so badass he once took down a rogue agent with a dandelion.
- Coulson has six senses: hearing, smell, sight, taste, touch and bullshit.
- Coulson has never done anything more taxing than paperwork.
- Coulson has no sense of humor whatsoever. (Clint knows this one to be false.)
- Coulson's pan is so dead it's become its own field of archeology. (Way more like it.)
- Coulson's just another senior handler.
- Coulson has no official position within SHIELD, but he's Director Fury's right-hand man.
- Coulson's never been seen wearing anything that wasn't a suit.
- Coulson's a giant Captain America fanboy.
That last one is honestly baffling, but Clint's source swore she'd witnessed Coulson arrange the relocation of a repentant HYDRA agent in exchange for a limited edition Captain America Swatch from 1989. Clint shrugs and pretends he doesn't care either way while he adds it to his mental list of Possibly True Things About Agent Coulson. It's a very short list, almost impossible to verify, and the whole thing would be so much easier if there was a photo of Coulson. Something Clint could memorize, a visual to go with the audio so he could let the matter drop already.
He doesn't give a shit whether Coulson's a stuffy accountant or a lean, mean, dandelion-picking machine.
He just wants to know.
Coulson's first name is Phillip. Clint has no idea why this fills him with so much glee, but it does.
Just… Phillip. Phillip.
It's a typical Coulson mission, neatly organized like clockwork, only with extra cogs and screws in place in case something goes wrong. For once, Clint is one of those extras, the backup plan to the backup plan. For once, he doesn't mind. The mission's low-profile enough for the junior agents to try their baby teeth on, but it still has to get done. This isn't one of HYDRA's main bases, but there's still intel to be found here.
Clint kind of likes that he's the ace up Coulson's sleeve. Gives him the warm fuzzies, it does.
What makes this mission one of the interesting ones is the enforced radio silence. Something inside HYDRA's compound blocks their transmissions, so once a team is in, that's it. No way to know how shit goes down except to wait for them to come out again.
They give the first team four hours beyond the projected time for completion. No alarms, but no returning team, either. The second group goes in with two extras, carefully instructed where to split up, and why, and when to leg it and call the mission a loss.
"You want me to go in, sir?" Clint asks when it becomes clear that nobody's going to make it to the extraction point any time soon.
Coulson, supervising the whole thing from god knows where, doesn't. "Give them time," he says.
Clint gives them twenty minutes. Then he gives them another five before he strings his bow and checks the quiver once more. "Coulson, if I give the puppies any more time to get out of there themselves, HYDRA will have turned them into fur coats and matching boots by the time we see them again."
"Are you the sheepdog or the tabby cat in this scenario?" Coulson sounds mildly interested.
Clint grins. "I always thought the movie lacked an older, experienced bird, sir."
"I bet you love Winnie the Pooh," Coulson says. "All right, go. Fetch me my assets."
Getting into the compound is easy. Clint on his own can take a few routes the junior agents never would have managed, and he takes advantage of the fact that, even with the base on alert (and they are on alert, they're just being sneaky about it), no one ever looks up to see if a circus-trained sniper might be making his way along the ceiling.
He goes for the intel first. It's the logical decision: intel means control room, control room means cameras; take out the guys in the control room, nobody watches the cameras. It also gives him access to the security system. Looks like the puppies are still alive and more or less in good shape. Coulson will like that.
The first team's easy to retrieve. One of the four (Asian, tiny) is holding her arm awkwardly. She waves him off when he asks if she's good to go.
"SHIELD doesn't hire crybabies," she says flatly. "It's just a break."
Clint likes her.
Of course, that's when the trouble starts. The alarm finally goes off for real (someone must have found the pile of bodies Clint left in the control room) and people first start shouting and then shooting. Clint directs his team of puppies through rooms and corridors, stopping only to let them pick up guns and ammo from the bodies he leaves behind. He's not careful anymore. He's a soldier; he rarely shoots to incapacitate, but now he abandons all thoughts of stealth for simple efficiency. Arrow to the throat, never mind the splatter. Don't pin the guy with the knife, just kill him. Four HYDRA agents pouring through the door. Take out one, two, see the third go down from a head shot fired by the girl with the broken arm (Clint really likes her). The fourth one's too close, stab him with an arrow. Make a face at the spray of blood that's ruining a perfectly good uniform.
"Jesus," one of the junior agents whispers, but Clint has no time to coddle anyone. There are six more SHIELD personnel on this base and he will get them.
He'd like to say things get a little blurry from there, but if anything, they get more focused. He cuts through HYDRA's forces like a diamond blade through glass. In the debriefing, he'll be able to recount, in perfect detail, every step taken, every arrow fired and reclaimed, every single life he ended. He'll have nightmares from this, but that doesn't stop him, never did.
He has a job to do.
He does it.
And when it's done, when he's out, he doesn't fight to keep from throwing up like two of the juniors. He doesn't whisper a prayer. He just clicks his radio and says, "All accounted for."
There isn't even a pause. "Took your sweet time, Barton," Coulson says, and damn if the man doesn't sound like he's smiling. Clint wonders if he can see the way the juniors keep giving Clint a wide berth, eyes huge and faces pale.
He'll always blame leftover adrenalin for what he says next. "I would have been faster with only half the puppies, sir, but I know how anal you are about getting your stuff back."
There's a long pause when Clint wonders if he's gone too far. Then Coulson snorts, indelicate and completely unexpected, and Clint grins tiredly even as he rubs his thumb across his sternum, where his heart is beating just a little too fast.
"Good job," Coulson says, and yeah.
Yeah. This one went okay.
The next one doesn't go okay at all.
He can see… there's a sunbeam stabbing through the dust and debris, solid enough to touch if only Clint could move his hand. Or much of anything, really. There's a… thing, like a slab of floor but jagged, red tubes running through it like veins. It's perched precariously over Clint's head, held up by the same mess of steel and concrete that's pinning Clint to the ground in more ways than one, such a fucking irony.
(It's like raaaaaaain on your wedding day…)
He's had that fucking song stuck in his head since he woke up, jumbled and all out of order. He's pretty sure he's got rebar in places it really shouldn't go. Like his thigh. There's a lot of wetness under his thigh. And his back. And he can see the… the slab, with the tubes, and towering above it a ruin of glass and plastic and carbon steel and torn wires, and somewhere something's spraying a lot of water, and the sunbeam sticking through the whole confusion like a giant sparkling lever, but he can't see the sky.
He can't see the sky, and it bugs the hell out of him.
It's a… he should be able to see the sky, shouldn't he? Mission. With the… thing. In… Harlem? He was right beneath the sky and now he isn't. There's a blank between those two things. Clint's head hurts.
It's a good thing he's bleeding out, because that way Natasha won't kill him for clocking out without her. (And isn't it ironic… don't you think?)
Something overhead shifts, another thing sparks, and suddenly what feels like entire buckets worth of fine debris are dumped on him. Clint jerks, and pain, and by the time he drifts back to somewhere coherent his mouth is full of dirt and his eyes are pretty much crusted shut. He coughs weakly, tries to move his tongue enough to shove out some of the muck and gives it up as a bad job.
Then he lies there, so fucking tired, listening to the building groan and shift around him. His breath whistles in and out of his nose, not enough air, and this isn't how he imagined dying. Not quiet and unnoticed. Not feeling the seconds tick by as he wonders if that slab is going to come down to crush his skull before or after he's dead.
He can hear it move towards him. It's crunching rhythmically, like it's leaning down by inches, like instead of mashing his brain into the rubble it just wants to tap him gently on the forehead.
Clint frowns. That can't be right.
(It's like meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful- Nonsense. Nonsense, nonsense…)
"Barton. Talk to me."
That's not the radio. Clint's lost his radio. And there's that tap on his forehead, except it's fingers brushing away some of the dirt, another touch at his throat, and he's dreaming, must be. He must be. He twists his head, struggles to clear his mouth, and this time someone helps him, someone, because there's no way-
"… here?" Only one word makes it out, the rest of the question smothered by exhaustion somewhere between his brain and his vocal cords. Or maybe it's just that Clint's heart is beating so fast that there's no energy left for talking (can't-be, can't-be, can't-be).
"I was in the neighborhood," Coulson says, Coulson says, and for a second Clint thinks he's going to cry. Coulson's voice sounds wrong. It's not calm and confident at all. It's… soft, holding relief and worry and a dozen other things Clint can't begin to name with no visual… oh. Oh, no, what the fuck?
Clint starts to laugh. It's faint and wheezing and hurts like hell, but he can't stop because this is so damn unfair it's hilarious. His last and only chance to find out what Coulson looks like, and his fucking eyes are cemented shut.
"Something funny, Agent?" Coulson's keeping his voice light, but he still sounds wrong. Clint can tell. He's had Coulson talk him through enough ops by now to know what he needs to listen for. He's pathetically grateful for the way Coulson's trying to pretend that Clint isn't a bit too broken to fix this time, for the way his hand is warm on Clint's throat, still measuring Clint's heartbeat. Coulson's there. Coulson's there, but-
"… voice… 'n my ear," he manages. That's what Coulson is. What he's always been, right from the start. Just a voice in Clint's ear, even now.
God, he's bitter. And he has no idea why.
The touch is so soft Clint isn't sure he's not imagining it. A fingertip ghosting over the dirt crusting Clint's eyes. Smoothing away some of the grime from Clint's temple. Trailing off just skimming his ear. Clint holds his breath.
"Positive," Coulson says quietly. Running joke. He remembered.
Something inside Clint eases, lets go. He thinks he may be smiling a little. His heartbeat stutters. He doesn't really hurt anymore.
"F'nny," he breathes, and slips away.
Ages pass before he's allowed out of medical, let alone PT. Inactivity while waiting for a mission to get to the fun parts is one thing; inactivity while being stuck in bed? Only marginally beats being stuck under a metric ton of rubble. He's one stubborn fuck so he's toughing it out, but that doesn't mean he's not itching to move, damn it.
Natasha drops by every now and then, unsympathetic and concerned by turns, depending on how much pain he's in. It's nice to know she cares, nicer still when she uses her powers for evil to get him Tony Stark's reply to the iPad.
"It's not supposed to get on the market for another six months," she tells him, "but working for the guy has its advantages."
He grins at her. "You hate him."
"So much," she sighs, and then shows him all the things she's downloaded for him.
Coulson doesn't drop by, but then Clint didn't expect him to. He does send Clint an e-mail with an iTunes code. It's for an audiobook, and when Clint sees the title he laughs so hard it hurts.
Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade: How to Survive Life's Smaller Challenges
He's still grinning when he sends his own e-mail.
Coulson replies almost instantly.
subject: Re: Jellyfish
Additional advice: never let a building fall on your head.
- P. Coulson
Clint may be a little bit in love.
One thing Clint likes about SHIELD's super-secret temporary bases of operations is that they always set up a canteen. Sometimes it's a tent, sometimes it's a side-tunnel in a cave, and sometimes it's a trailer with a dozen small tables crammed in and the air con running overtime. It's strangely comforting, in a way, to get the same institutionalized mac'n'cheese in New Mexico that he had just two days ago in Southern Germany.
Nothing says welcome like bright yellow pasta and a coke.
He's arrived just after shift change so the trailer is pretty stuffed. He spots an empty table anyway, a tiny thing with just two chairs that's been wedged into a corner. Yeah, no.
Clint puts down his tray and then shifts the table, ignoring the glare from the guy whose chair he bumps it into. He's not here to make friends, and he'll be damned if he's going to sit with his back to the door. If the guy wants to complain, he can take it up with Sitwell. Clint has worked with him before; as long as he gets the job done, Sitwell doesn't care how many toes Clint steps on.
Corner newly freed, he drags one of the chairs over and sits down to start shoveling lukewarm pasta into his mouth, keeping an eye on the exit. The sooner he's done eating, the sooner he can check if his bow made it here in one piece. After that, maybe he can find Sitwell and figure out what the hell he's doing here. The ground's swarming with security personnel. He can't see why they'd need a specialist like him to keep an eye on things.
Another tray hits the table with a soft click. Burger, with the saddest drooping excuse for lettuce Clint has ever seen, and he's been to McDonald's in Germany. The second chair gets pulled back and a guy sits down without so much as a greeting. No small talk. Clint approves.
He spares the guy a quick glance (suit, a bit too expensive for simple security; confident posture; senior agent? Analyst?) and goes back to his mac'n'cheese. It's just starting to congeal. That's the best bit.
They eat their junk food in silence, secure in the knowledge they won't be accidentally ingesting any vitamins today. It's kind of neat, actually. He'll have to see if he can make this guy his table buddy for however long this mission lasts. They'd probably both be glad to have uninterrupted meals. This guy doesn't seem any more inclined to make anyone's acquaintance than Clint himself.
Clint's about to suggest as much when the guy's jacket starts to buzz. The guy huffs out a breath through his nose that isn't quite a sigh but manages to convey exasperation just fine, and reaches into the inside pocket. Clint shoves another forkful of cooling pasta into his mouth as the guy pulls out a phone and glances at the caller ID before he picks it up.
"This better be good."
Clint sucks in a startled breath and inhales half his mac'n'cheese. The other half sprays over the table as he starts to cough, eyes watering as he reaches desperately for his coke.
"Shit," he croaks, gasping for breath, because holy shit, holy shit.
Coulson gives him an unimpressed look as he says, "I'm on my way," and hangs up. "Please bus that for me, Barton," he adds with a nod at his tray and the half-eaten burger on it. The drooping lettuce is now dotted with tiny yellow bits of pasta.
"Yes, sir," Clint manages, because he's a professional, god damn it, and not nearly as idiotic as he's making himself look right now.
"Thank you." One corner of Coulson's mouth twitches. "I'll see you at dinner."
He waits until Coulson has left the trailer. Then he pushes away his tray and very slowly, very carefully, bangs his head on the table.
He doesn't see Coulson at dinner because they end up with a security breach. Clint's been told to stay away from the ground troops (especially from the junior agents; apparently Clint's got a reputation now) and so he takes up position near their sad excuse for an armory (a single armored van) when the alarm goes off. He's a sniper; there must be a reason Coulson had him assigned here, and it certainly wasn't Clint's brilliant impression of a beached fish.
Maybe, if he's really lucky, he'll get a chance to prove he's worth keeping.
Minutes go by, a sudden rainfall soaking him through to the skin, and he's starting to think the intruder might have been dealt with when his radio crackles, and Coulson says, "I need eyes up high, with a gun."
Yes and thank-you.
He's in the armored van before Coulson has finished speaking, hands on a rifle before he decides that, no. No, this isn't the way he's going to do this. Not when his bow is right there.
The intruder is making his way through the plastic tunnels, apparently unimpressed with what the ground units are throwing at him. Clint can relate; it's obvious that Coulson's ordered non-lethal force, but if this is the best SHIELD's got when the guns are out of play, it doesn't look like they've got much. Clint could show them a trick or two if he hadn't been ordered to go high, but he's going to toe the line between initiative and insubordination already. No need to add to it.
Sitwell's orders assigned him sniper position, if needed, on top of the containment area. Plastic's shit to climb, though, and the long way up is not his style. Clint found something better.
The small crane cage is slick with rainwater, but personal safety's not his main issue right now. He gives a thumbs-up and Li starts the crane, yanks him up and to the left so he can aim where the mysterious immovable hammer is mysteriously failing to sink into the mud.
"That's my girl," he mutters as he strings the bow on his way up. He'll have to ask Coulson to give her a junior agent gold star or something.
And then he's in position, just as Coulson says, "Barton. Talk to me."
Clint nocks the arrow. "You want me to slow him down, sir? Or are you sending in more guys for him to beat up?"
Because honestly, what he can see from up here makes him feel embarrassed on behalf of SHIELD agents everywhere. It's just sad.
"I'll let you know," Coulson says.
Clint doesn't smile, but it's a close thing. This is his job. This is him, up high, with his target in range and Coulson's voice in his ear. This is what he does.
Only he doesn't really get to do anything, just watches as their intruder (some kind of long-haired surfer-wrestler guy) fails to pick up the hammer, yells a bit at the sky and then slumps down into the mud. Coulson, like a kid who's just discovered that his shiny new toy doesn't have any batteries included, calls the whole thing off and sends in the ground units again, with better results this time. Three hours later, he even lets the guy go.
Clint's not disappointed. Violence is his job, not his calling, and he's never sad to not take someone down (unless it's personal, but it rarely is anymore; he's more careful now) with weeks of recovery or a short trip six feet down ahead of them.
He's not disappointed, but he's not too happy, either.
He's taking the bow apart when Coulson finds him, sitting on top of the armored truck so no one can tell him he took any weapon away from the armory without permission. A bit of water won't do any damage, except Clint's never been known to take any chances with his equipment. He's not about to start now.
The top of the van is still wet, so he's not expecting Coulson to sit down next to him, careful not to touch any of the parts Clint hasn't cleaned and dried yet. You'll ruin your suit, Clint doesn't say. He's never been tongue-tied around Coulson when they were on different ends of a radio line. Now, with only inches between them, talking seems unaccountably hard.
So he puts down the piece he was holding on the towel beside him and plucks up the next one. When in doubt, lay low. Works for the possum.
"I believe," Coulson says finally, "that your assigned default position was on top of the scaffolding."
Ah. So Coulson's here to chew him out for disobeying orders. At least that's somewhat familiar. "Crane's faster. Sir."
"So it is." And because Clint still isn't looking at Coulson, he picks up the satisfied note in Coulson's voice as he adds, "Lucky coincidence that Agent Li was in a position to offer that alternative."
"Yes, sir." Clint smirks, just a little, feeling the tension in his muscles ease a bit. Seems that Coulson's letting him get away with disobedience, if only because it worked. That's also familiar.
Something crinkles. A moment later, Clint's looking down at a slightly damp packet of Little Debbie frosted donuts, neatly opened.
"Donut?" Coulson asks pleasantly.
Clint looks up. Coulson still looks more like an analyst than SHIELD's most badass handler. He's not smiling, just wearing the blandest expression Clint's ever seen. Then again, Coulson often has one of the blandest voices Clint's ever heard, so that fits all right.
And that's when it hits him. This is Coulson. This is the guy Clint's been trusting with his life for almost three years now, and they're sitting on top of an armored van only a stone's throw away from a mysterious immovable hammer, sharing donuts.
Clint couldn't stop the grin from spreading if he had a gun to his head. "So you're bringing me dinner now?"
One corner of Coulson's mouth curves up. "Seems we both missed it."
"Little bit of junk food's not going to help much," Clint points out, but he's already taken one of the donuts because now that food is there, he's hungry.
Coulson wordlessly reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a packet of glazed donuts and sets it down between them.
Clint blinks, and then he laughs, and Coulson gives him an amiable (and bland, so bland, how the hell does he do that?) smile as he fishes out a donut for himself.
They eat in silence, as that is how meals should be eaten, and yeah, Natasha's a little bit right. Coulson's unimposing and unassuming and not the kind of guy you'd look at once, let alone twice. He's absolutely not Clint's type.
Except for all the ways he is.
They make it something of a habit to share their meals when they're on the same base at the same time. Not always; Coulson's table is off-limits when he's sitting with Sitwell, and Clint has somehow picked up a gaggle of juniors that Coulson wants no part of (nor does Clint, exactly, but they're good for fetching coffee). Sometimes Natasha joins them, smiling like she knows all their secrets and daring them to try whatever weird snack she's brought back from her latest mission (Coulson's slow blink at the dried octopus tentacles was the closest Clint's ever seen him to baffled). Sometimes one of them sits down and immediately gets up again because Fury wants something, or Hill wants something, or fucking Hanayama from HR needs another signature because SHIELD invents forms faster than Tony Stark invents useless gadgets.
But more often than not, they set their trays down across from each other and spend their meal in comfortable silence, only talking when it's something important.
Like Coulson's astonishing lack of self-preservation.
"That doesn't look like it's meant for human consumption," Clint says, pointing his fork at Coulson's leathery lasagne.
"You're having the macaroni and cheese," Coulson says, in a tone that makes it perfectly clear that in Coulson's opinion Clint's in no position to judge anyone's food.
"Lunch of champions," Clint says and shoves another forkful into his mouth.
Coulson watches him chew for a moment before he resumes picking at his own plate. This is the first time they've seen each other in days, what with Coulson overseeing some project for Fury and Clint making sure no one steals the glowy cube they're tinkering with in the labs. As far as Clint understands it, the cube is some kind of doorway to another dimension that could be used as a power source. Neat, if they can get it to work, but watching the damn thing all day is still one of the most boring ops he's ever been assigned to. And stressful; somehow, monitoring fourteen people for hours on end and having none of them do anything fishy is more tiring than taking down fourteen hostiles in the same time. Dr. Selvig, the lead scientist, is starting to call the cube 'she,' though, so at least Clint knows he's not the only one who's cracking.
And he's got these breaks to look forward to. He's spent so much time with Coulson quietly talking in his ear that just sitting across from him is enough to help Clint unwind. Coulson is so reliable in both his clothing and his mannerisms that somehow, without quite noticing at first, Clint has started to react to him in the same way he used to react to the safety net at the circus: ah, there it is. You can relax now. Everything will be fine.
It's weirdly addictive.
"Do you want to have dinner with me?" Clint doesn't realize he's going to ask until it's too late. He blinks, but the question's out with no way to take it back. Shit.
Coulson stops chewing and looks at Clint with… well, not surprise because Coulson doesn't do surprise. Not in any obvious way. But he does take a moment before he swallows and asks, "In a professional capacity?"
And that's it, Clint's take-back. He can say he was just wondering if they'd meet up again later. He can say he wants to talk about that mission in New Mexico and how the clean-up could have gone better. He can say that of course he means professionally, what a weird thing to ask.
The mac'n'cheese sits in his stomach like Thor's mysterious hammer.
"I'd prefer a date. Sir."
Coulson seems to consider this. "Then no. I don't want to have dinner with you." Clint's stomach drops as Coulson resumes eating. Coulson may appear as relaxed as he was when they sat down, but there's a new tension in the way he holds his fork. Clint knows him well enough by now to spot it.
Clint taps his own fork.
"Okay," he says slowly. It's not the first time he got rejected, and it's… it's not a big deal, right? Not like he had reason to expect anything different, right? And it's not like Coulson's going to be all weird, now they both know where they stand, kind of, and that's… good.
He puts down his fork and sighs. Suddenly, he's not that hungry anymore.
Coulson gives him a brief, tired smile, like he's grateful that Clint's letting the whole thing drop so easily. There's an odd look in his eyes, something almost like regret, but mostly exhaustion. Clint wonders what Fury's making him do all day.
"My minions want to know if they can try to qualify with a bow, but they're too scared of you to ask," he says, and reaches out to take a sip of his coke. Casual. Pretending he's not feeling a little bit queasy.
"They're SHIELD's minions," Coulson replies at once, "not yours. SHIELD minions use guns," and it's okay. They're okay.
Everything will be fine.
Everything is fine. Everything's the best it's ever been and Clint doesn't even have to want this to last forever because he doesn't have to want anything. Loki's taken away the need to want and it's like Clint has been set loose, like he's been tied up his entire life and Loki just cut the ropes.
He doesn't want anything. He doesn't want to prove himself, or to trust anyone, or to find somewhere he belongs. He doesn't want to laugh, to brood, to regret, to joke. He doesn't want Natasha at his side, or Coulson to smile at him again, or Fury to say, "Good job, Agent."
He doesn't even want to know why these things used to be important.
He's in control, anticipating Loki's wishes and making them happen with nothing to hold him back but the limits of his own body, and even those have been pushed back by the Blue that liberated him. He's thinking clearer than ever. He's killing faster than ever. He's better than ever and it's not a thrill, just a low feeling of satisfaction that might be his or might be Loki's, who the fuck cares? Loki is a god. Loki says what he wants to happen and Clint makes damn sure it happens, and that's enough.
For the first time, he's not holding anything back because there is nothing to withhold. If Loki asks, Clint answers. He doesn't want to lay out all Natasha's secrets, but neither does he want to protect them. He doesn't want to infiltrate SHIELD, but neither does he want to ensure its safety.
He doesn't tell Loki about Coulson; not because Loki doesn't ask but because it doesn't matter. Clint never did figure the man out and now he won't have to. Once Loki has brought the world to its knees, Coulson will be kneeling beside Clint and they'll both be free in their Blue-edged world.
Clint will make it happen.
Loki wants him to.
He's on the walkway and in control and there's Natasha, and he knows all of her weaknesses.
Then he's on the ground and his head hurts and there's Natasha, and he loves her, wait, what the hell? What is he doing?
"Natasha?" he croaks, but what he means is, 'whatever I'm doing, please make me stop.'
Coming back from Loki's magic isn't like waking up. It's like drowning. It's like everything Loki's poured into Clint's head is coming up to pull him under and no matter how desperately he shakes his head he can't get it out.
He doesn't have the strength to try.
Free will is a rock and Loki's magic is an ocean, and between the two Clint's been shattered until there's nothing left but skin and bones. He may have been broken before but now he's unmade, all the tiny pieces of Clint Barton swept away and he's… hollow. He's nothing.
"You're going to be all right," Natasha says and she sounds so sure, but what if she's wrong? What if he won't be?
What if he doesn't want to be?
He swallows. His voice is hoarse like he's been screaming. He doesn't remember doing that, but he remembers all he did for Loki. Everything he… everyone he…
"Natasha," he says, slowly, not wanting to know the answer (he does want so many things again, but not this), but needing to be told, "how many agents did I take-"
"Don't," she says, and where his question came out too slow her answer is too fast. "Don't do that to yourself, Clint. This is Loki. This is monsters and magic and nothing we were ever trained for."
She means it. She's not blaming him for anything he did, anything he said, but there's something she's not telling him, something important. Her body language is… off, barely suppressed rage in every movement, and this isn't right. Natasha's a lot of things, but never careless with her tells. Loki did something that's making her hurt almost as much as she did when he first saw her all those years ago, and all she wants to do is lash out in return. Clint feels raw, like his lungs have been replaced with a cheese grater, but that doesn't mean he can watch her ache and not try to make it better.
"Natasha…" he says again, quietly, trying to think of a way that'll get her to open up.
Then it hits him.
He's been compromised. He's… he was out of his mind, literally, and killed god knows how many of his own people. Of course she wouldn't give him any intel that counts. Of course she'd tell him only what he already knows.
Of course she doesn't trust him.
He doesn't know what sound escapes him, but she jerks her head around immediately, small fingers digging into his wrist before he can take another breath.
"No, Clint," she snaps, her grip so tight it hurts, "don't."
"Can't say I'd blame you," he rasps, his voice cracking all over again. "I…"
"It's Coulson," she says, quickly, like pulling off a band-aid, like doing it fast will make it hurt any less. "He's dead."
And the whole world just… freezes. Time, movement, Clint's breath in his lungs, all just… stops.
"What?" he whispers, with no idea how he gets the words out. Blue edges into the corners of his vision but he can't shake his head to chase it away this time, can't even blink.
"Loki," she says, the name dropping from her mouth like a death sentence.
Loki is a god. Loki says what he wants to happen and Clint makes damn sure it happens.
The thought makes Clint stumble to his feet, makes the Blue jerk back as he sways towards the small bathroom that's attached to his cell, "I'm gonna…"
Natasha nods, silent, and he staggers to the sink, where he fumbles at the tap until the water starts rushing out.
He wants to stick his whole head under there. Instead he just shoves his hands into the cold water, watches it run over his fingers and into the drain in a way that's not at all like blood. His chest is heaving but he still can't breathe properly, can't even think of meeting his own gaze in the mirror. He feels sick.
Clint closes his eyes and swallows. It shouldn't matter that much, they never even did anything, Clint barely knew him, but dear god it hurts, it hurts. No more missions, no more 'Talk to me, Barton,' no more… no more anything.
The water runs so cold his skin starts to prickle, then burn. Clint welcomes the pain. If he can't move his hands, at least he can't hurt anyone. If his fingers sting more, his heart will ache less.
He stays in the bathroom for a long time.
Natasha lets him.
He doesn't get to put an arrow through Loki's eye socket. He tries to tell himself that seeing the god, the man, beaten and humiliated is enough to make him feel less hollow. To make him sleep better. Or at all.
It really, really isn't.
After Loki's gone (it's probably too much to hope for him to be executed, but Clint's never claimed to be anything but vindictive), Clint half expects to find himself at loose ends. The aliens are dead, the Avengers are over, and SHIELD doesn't have enough psychiatrists to start evaluating all their traumatized personnel at once. At the very least, Clint expects to be on the bench until someone can verify (how, he has no idea) that Loki's well and truly out of his head.
Turns out that saving Earth makes people more or less take his word for it. Fury has him back on the duty roster before Clint's finished giving his report. And for a while, that's almost enough to keep him going.
He doesn't help repair the Helicarrier. Not because the people there are nervous around him; most aren't, anymore than they were before. If anything, Clint's gaggle of juniors has gained a few members. Li seems to take great pleasure in bossing them around. She'll go far, that one.
It's Clint who can't stand to walk the corridors and see the damage he caused, think of the agents he killed. 'Didn't have a choice' doesn't mean much when it's still your own hands throwing the grenade, letting the arrow fly. If Natasha hadn't stopped him on that walkway, if Clint had made it to Loki's cell and Coulson had been there… Loki wouldn't have had to lift a finger. It's that knowledge more than anything that makes Clint keep away from the 'Carrier unless Fury orders him up.
There's enough to do down in New York, anyway. Midtown's in pretty bad shape. The streets are filled with blown-up and burned-out cars, chunks of fallen concrete and steel, shards, broken furniture and office equipment. And bodies, human and alien alike. More alien, though, something Clint is glad for.
It takes several days to get that alien mothership space whale thing off the two apartment buildings it fell dead on. Natasha's up on the Helicarrier and Stark's more or less content to pay for a good portion of the clean-up, but Clint prefers a more hands-on approach. He thinks he's seen Rogers on a sweeping crew two blocks east, but didn't stop to check and say hello. On the third day, Banner joins Clint's team, giving him a wry smile as the guys around him fail to ever shut up about the Avengers, with no idea that two of them are working right there beside them.
"You seem tired," Banner says when their shift is done, cranes in place to see if they can't get that fucker down without any more collateral damage. It's a very polite way of telling Clint he looks like shit.
"I'm fine," Clint says, rubbing his neck. It's a very polite way of telling Banner to mind his own fucking business. Truth is, Clint has been catching naps in fits and starts, crashing in empty offices on the eighth floor of some building or other, or in the back of an empty bakery, or halfway up one of those cranes. He's exhausted-approaching-knackered, but swaying on his feet is better than trying to sleep.
Anything's better than trying to sleep.
Banner lets out a non-committal little hum. Somehow, that little hum seems to translate into an unremarkable compact car showing up not ten minutes later with a missive from SHIELD that Clint's to set up camp at Stark Tower until further notice. Clint glares at Banner, but Banner just smiles again and tells Clint to get in the car.
Stark's waiting for them when they get to the Tower. "I got Rogers to agree that staying here makes a lot more sense than his daily commute from I don't care where," he says cheerfully. "The band's back together!"
Clint blinks, thrown. Whatever he expected, it wasn't this. "What about Natasha?"
Stark gasps in mock horror. "You can't have a girl in a boy band! Did the Beatles teach you nothing? Besides, she said she wouldn't move in until you tell her the place is clean." He puts a hand on his heart, fingers bumping against his arc reactor. "I'm a little insulted by her implications."
"Okay." Clint's hands clench uselessly at his sides. He longs desperately, irrationally, for his bow.
He's been off-balance before, but he's never felt unmoored inside his own head.
"Talkative," Stark says and, when Clint only stares at him, adds, "Well, come on, Chatterbox, let's show you to your room."
Clint's room is near the top of the Tower, with a stunning view over the city around him. It's got a huge bed and a minibar and a giant television with the appropriate sound system, and not much else. Under different circumstances, Clint would probably love it.
Stark promises him a better room, "in a few weeks, we're still remodeling, are those really your clothes? You look like a dumpster exploded on you."
Clint's not convinced he'll be around in a few weeks. He's no use like this.
Natasha moves in without fuss once Clint reports that the only surveillance he could find was Stark's own, dormant unless requested otherwise or in case of emergency. She spends her first night in Clint's room, back pressed against his chest, the mattress stretching out empty to either side of them. And this, this is how Clint remembers Budapest, the smell of her hair and the certainty that if anyone tries to kill him in his sleep, at least it won't be her. He's never had many people to rely on, but Natasha's right up there on the list of those he trusts.
He tries not to think about how short that list has become lately.
"I'm sorry I couldn't protect him," she whispers, fingers clenching around his.
He tightens his arms around her, buries his face in her hair. "He'd've kicked your ass for saying he needed protection."
"It's okay," he tells her, and waits for her to relax long after they should have dropped off to sleep.
It's not okay.
In the fourth night Clint spends at the Tower, something inside him cracks, or maybe breaks entirely, and he blames sleep-deprivation. It's the only explanation that makes even a little sense for what he's doing.
He's been staring at the ceiling for hours. His eyes are burning. His bones are heavy, sinking into the mattress like they're filled with lead. Small tremors are running through his body, intermittent, unstoppable. SHIELD's going to disappear him if he doesn't get his act together soon.
He can't sleep.
Every time he closes his eyes, the Blue creeps in. Like tendrils reaching for his mind. His soul. You have heart. He remembers standing beside Loki, so sure of his place, unquestioning, loyal. He remembers, and it makes him feel angry, and helpless, and sick to his stomach.
He can't sleep.
He's got too much space in his mind.
The thing is, he knows the trouble's just inside his head. The Blue, Loki; they're just echoes of the real deal. He knows that. But Natasha was right. This isn't anything they were ever trained for.
There's a brief pause, Stark's surveillance systems popping online, and then a smooth, English-accented voice asks, "Do you require my assistance, Mr. Barton?" Ready to power down again if Clint says no.
"Yeah." Clint swallows. "Can you… imitate another person's voice?"
"If I have records of that person's speech patterns, certainly."
It's stupid. Clint knows it's stupid, and yet his mouth opens and out comes, "You have records of Agent Coulson, right?"
Another pause. Clint's left hand trembles. He ignores it.
"I believe the material I have is sufficient," JARVIS says. He sounds weirdly cautious, like he suspects Clint's programming might be unstable. He wouldn't be entirely wrong. "May I ask what you would like me to say?"
And just like that, Clint's mouth is entirely dry. "Just," he croaks, coughs, closes his eyes. Blue. He opens them again, clenches his left hand into a fist. "Just tell me to sleep or something. Doesn't matter." Just this once. Just once, and then he'll go back to being Clint Barton, SHIELD agent, marksman, asset. Just once, so he can stop being Clint Barton, wreck.
Just this once.
"I understand," JARVIS says, and he probably does because the next thing he says is, "Barton. You're safe here."
It's Coulson's voice.
Clint takes a shuddering breath. His chest hurts, and his eyes feel like he's rolled them around in a sandpit.
"Yeah," he whispers.
"I want you to go to sleep now." It's Coulson's voice, but it's a little kinder than usual, somehow. Gentler. This must have been the way he talked to Stark's girlfriend, and god, Clint misses him so much, so fucking much. "It's okay, I've got you covered."
"Yes, sir." Clint's voice sounds as wrecked as he feels, but when he closes his eyes against the pain, all he sees is black. He swallows again, and it's like he's choking. "Please keep talking."
And he does. He keeps telling Clint that it's okay, that he'll keep watch. He says that Clint's done very well, but it's time to let go now. Clint can stand down. It's all right. Coulson's got him.
Clint listens. He listens, and ignores the wetness on his cheeks, and eventually, Clint sleeps.
He sleeps, but the nightmares are worse than ever.
Coulson was a voice in Clint's ear.
He was someone Clint could trust, someone he had a bit of a crush on, someone who shot Clint down with a tired smile. He liked terrible food and was judgmental of Clint's own choices. His personality traits didn't match, even the ones Clint had figured out. He was a good guy, one of the best, but at the end of the day? Clint didn't really know him all that well.
He was just a voice in Clint's ear.
So why the hell does he feel like he's mourning something?
(Because he is, he is.)
Clint doesn't ask JARVIS to do the voice again. He can't. He also can't stand still for any length of time. He can't find a nice, high spot to climb and get out of everyone's way; he's afraid he'll fall right down again. He can't hide.
He can't eat, either. Even mac'n'cheese tastes like dust in his mouth.
When Fury calls him up to the 'Carrier ten days later, Clint knows he's officially become A Problem.
The 'Carrier, it turns out, isn't 'up' at all. It's hovering off the coast, looking like a weird black island that's populated by nothing but tiny orange people. A lot of them are clustered in and around Engine 3 which is at rest like a giant, inert cooler fan. The other three engines are running just enough to keep everything above water level.
Clint's surprised to see barely a trace of the damage he dealt. Some parts of the metal are shinier, newer, but otherwise the 'Carrier looks as solid as it ever did.
Not everything he did was irreparable.
Fury's in the secondary control room, alone, staring at the huge panorama windows that are still missing most of their glass. Collateral damage. Clint stands a little straighter and clasps his hands behind his back.
"Mutants and aliens and fucking magic." Fury sighs and shakes his head, gesturing at the broken windows like they're a metaphor for his life these days. "I can't deal with this shit."
Until three weeks ago, he wouldn't have had to, Clint hears. Until three weeks ago, dealing with this shit was Coulson's job.
He closes his eyes for a moment.
"Sir," he repeats, and Fury turns around, looking Clint up and down like he's just one more part of the shit Fury doesn't want to deal with.
"Can't use a compromised agent, either," he says, ominous. Or maybe not so ominous; Clint's been waiting for something like this.
"Loki's out of my head," he replies, knowing full well that isn't what Fury's talking about. But hell, if Fury wants him tied to a bed and sedated into getting some rest, he's going to have to spell it out because Clint's too fucking tired to make anything easy for anyone.
Fury watches him for a moment, his expression unreadable.
"I don't think I need to remind you that Agent Coulson is dead."
The words hit like a gut shot. Clint barely manages not to flinch.
"No, sir," he rasps, his voice rough like something's lodged in his throat. Like the acknowledgment is choking him.
He knows that Coulson is dead. That doesn't mean he's prepared to hear it out loud.
Fury nods, looking strangely satisfied.
"Good. He wants you to have these."
He tosses something at Clint, and Clint's not so far gone that he can't catch. Plastic crinkles in his hand. He looks down.
Little Debbie frosted donuts.
His breath doesn't hitch because it seems to be frozen in his chest. "Sir?" he hears himself ask, faintly, the sound muted by the sudden pounding in his ears.
He wants you to have these.
His stomach clenches, sick with sudden hope.
His fingers close around the donuts without him telling them to, gripping hard enough to crush the stupid things. When he finally manages to pull in a ragged breath, he looks up to find Fury still watching him, a faint smile in his eye.
"Get some fucking sleep, Barton," Fury says, not unkindly.
"Yeah," Clint mumbles, dazed, and he staggers out of the control room without really seeing the corridors he's walking through. He's still clutching the little packet of donuts like it's a lifeline and maybe it is because for the first time in three weeks, he doesn't feel like he's drowning. He feels... almost at ease.
Like he just has to wait a little longer and all the hollow places will fill up again. He'll be himself again, if he just waits.
Just a little longer.
He sleeps for a day and a half and then demolishes a stack of pancakes bigger than his head. He goes for a run after, Natasha at his side like a deadly shadow, like she needs to make sure he hasn't cracked completely. He loves her for it.
"What did Fury say to you?" she asks when she catches him humming Billy Joel under his breath.
"Nothing," he says, and then sings, "Honesty is such a lonely word," just to make her laugh. Just to let her know that, yeah, something's changed, but for the better. He knows she'll get it.
"Everybody lies," she says after a moment.
"Yeah." He nods, then throws her a sideways glance.
She hums, thoughtful, and shrugs. "It's been a while."
That's how they end up on Tony Stark's criminally comfortable couch watching House, M.D. Rogers joins them, then Banner, both of them glancing at him but keeping quiet. They're halfway into season two when Stark drops into the free space next to Clint.
"Wow. Those must be some pretty good drugs they put you on," he comments, and everyone relaxes, nods sagely and assumes that Clint's discovered a better life through SHIELD-prescribed chemistry. Everyone but Natasha, who smiles and keeps her mouth shut because that's how they work.
Besides, they both know better than to share unconfirmed intel, Clint thinks as he leans back into the couch. Maybe Fury's just playing with him. Maybe Clint got the wrong idea.
He still feels like his heart is beating properly again.
It's a good feeling.
When Clint was a SHIELD agent, he thought his life was pretty decent where the excitement factor was concerned. Infiltrations, thefts, the occasional assassination... almost every assignment offered at least a bit of a challenge, and he liked that.
Now Clint's an Avenger. Challenging doesn't even begin to cover it.
"Get out of the way!" he barks, not for the first time. The building he's on is the highest nearby, but it gives him a bad angle to shoot at the honest to god, giant, evil, fire-breathing turtle that's waltzing its way through Eureka harbor. Every time the damn thing turns its head enough for him to see its eye, somebody blocks his shot.
"I can't be everywhere at once!" Rogers snaps, and then rolls out of the way as the turtle snaps at him.
"Keep your shield out of my shot and you won't have to be," Clint tells him, back to waiting for another opportunity.
This would all go so much faster if he could just use explosives, but with the way Stark keeps flitting to and fro like a fucking hummingbird Clint's honestly afraid he'll take him down instead.
"Hey, kids, how about you concentrate on Bowser here?" Stark says... and promptly ruins any chance Clint might have by hovering right in front of Bowser's eye, firing his repulsors at it.
"You're just fucking with me now," Clint mutters, glad that Banner at least is sitting this one out. With the Hulk running rampant, the harbor would look worse than it already does and Clint would never get a shot.
His radio clicks once, and then a different voice is on the line, self-assured and calm as you please. And yeah, Clint's been waiting for something like this for over a month now, but his breath still catches.
"Captain," Coulson says, and Clint's gratified to see Rogers nearly drop his shield, "please move to the rear of the creature. Iron Man, accompany him. Concentrate on its left leg; maybe you can immobilize it. Keep the damage to the infrastructure to a minimum, the Mayor's already calling for your heads. Widow, make it turn its head in Hawkeye's direction. Hawkeye," and there's the slightest pause, like Coulson has to take a breath before he can continue, "talk to me."
Clint is grinning so hard it's almost throwing off his aim. Almost. "How do I know you're you?"
Coulson's voice sounds a little bit scratchy and a lot amused as he replies, "You'll have to take my word for it."
Clint's grin fades into something closer to a smile. Rogers and Stark have recovered enough to start hitting Bowser's leg. Natasha's right below him, firing her Widow's Bite at Bowser's neck to make it rear its head in her (and Clint's) direction. Its eye glitters, and Clint has the perfect angle. "Positive, sir."
"Take the shot, Barton," Coulson says.
"What the hell, Barton?!"
It's the first thing Stark's said to him, and the fact that he waited until they were back at SHIELD for their debriefing before he started yelling has Clint a little worried. A quiet Stark is a brooding Stark. And it's not like Clint's much of a team-player, but he kind of likes these guys, so Stark kicking him out of the Tower would really suck.
So he raises his hands and takes a step back. "I didn't know anything for sure." At Stark's disbelieving look, he adds, "All right, yeah, I suspected, but-"
"We're a team," Rogers says firmly. "If we don't share our knowledge, we're not going to work."
Behind Clint, Banner clears his throat. "To be fair," he says, "I didn't share, either."
There's a moment of silence when everyone's just staring at him.
Banner holds up a hand, fingers spread. "Convenient timing," he ticks off. "No funeral. No one stepped up to fill his position. Fury never mentioned him again, even for leverage." He smiles, all fingers but the little one curled into his palm. "Barton's sudden change in mood," and that's the little finger gone.
Rogers blinks. Stark looks somewhere between pissed and thoughtful.
"I have another hand," Banner offers, almost playful, and next to Clint Natasha actually laughs. Quietly, but she laughs.
"I don't believe that will be necessary," Coulson says from the door.
"What the hell, Agent?!" Stark snaps immediately while Rogers stands, arms crossed, radiating quiet disapproval. Coulson raises his eyebrows.
"Your concern is heart-warming, Mr. Stark," he says, which sends Stark first into sputtering and then a tirade about making Pepper cry. Rogers, meanwhile, looks torn between keeping up the disapproval and shaking Coulson's hand, especially when Banner interrupts Stark by doing just that.
"Welcome back," he says with that half-smile of his.
Clint is... pretty much rooted to the spot. He watches, can't stop watching, as Coulson carefully returns Banner's handshake, moving a lot more stiffly than usual. He watches, breath held, as Rogers finally cracks and says it's good to have Coulson back, though he'd appreciate more honesty in the future. He watches, heart caught in his throat right where his breath is stuck, as Stark tries to convince Coulson to move into the Tower so he can never, ever pull shit like that again.
He can't stop watching. He also can't seem to stop smiling.
Coulson is paler than he used to be, a little flushed from Captain America's admonishment, the lines around his eyes deeper than usual. He's obviously in pain, but he's just as obviously pleased to be there, with them, alive and well and... alive.
A small hand closes around his, squeezes hard enough to hurt. Natasha. He blinks the slight sting from his eyes, squeezes back.
He can't stop watching.
Across the room, Coulson meets his gaze, tilts his chin just a fraction. Clint nods at him, no hope of getting any words around that jumble of heart and breath that's choking him. Coulson seems to get it anyway. He's smiling, an honest smile that lingers in his eyes, and Clint... he can't.
He can't breathe. He can't look at that smile and not want. He can't make his chest stop aching. He can't walk over there and shake Coulson's hand because he'd cling. He couldn't help it. He'd cling and break and maybe even cry, and Coulson doesn't deserve that. He's just come back from the dead. He shouldn't have to deal with Clint's shit.
This was supposed to be the thing that put Clint back onto firm ground; instead, he's floundering worse than ever.
Coulson's smile is turning into a puzzled frown. Clint squeezes Natasha's hand even harder, panicked like a junior on his first mission gone south, but she's got him. She always has.
"Post-mission medical," she says shortly, just as Coulson's opening his mouth to pull down each and every one of Clint's crumbling defenses by asking if he's all right.
"Yeah," Clint croaks, lets himself be dragged from the room and around a corner where Natasha leans him against a wall and tells him to breathe, breathe.
Stark somehow manages to herd everyone, even Coulson, back to the Tower for an improvised Glad You're Not Dead, Asshole party. It's loud and obnoxious and Stark's girlfriend tears up before she hugs Coulson, and Clint downs his drink and makes his escape before he can think too hard about the touched look on Coulson's face, or the way Coulson's gaze keeps finding him no matter how hard he tries to fade into the background.
Clint's got that 'better' room by now, but that's the first place anyone would look for him. The roof is probably a close second. He goes there anyway. It's dark out; with a little luck, he'll blend in enough that no one will bother him.
The nice thing about Stark Tower is that it doesn't have just one roof but at least half a dozen of them. Clint picks the third one from the top because it doesn't have a railing; maybe Stark forgot to have it replaced. He sits on the edge and lets his legs dangle, looking out over Manhattan. Lights move and flicker below him, but there are still dark patches where yet more light should be.
Footsteps crunch on the gravel behind him. He doesn't turn around, even though his stupid heart starts beating a little faster.
"The city got hit pretty hard," Coulson observes. It's not like him to state the obvious, but then he did almost die. Maybe Clint's not the only one who needs to get his feet back under him.
He isn't sure if he likes that thought.
"It's New York." Clint shrugs. "It'll move on."
Coulson hums. Clint stubbornly refuses to look at him. If Coulson's got something to say, Clint's not going to make it easy for him. Besides, what would he even say? That he's sorry for playing dead? That Clint's being an ass? That they'll still have to work together? That they won't work together? That Clint's off the team? That he was never supposed to be on it in the first place?
That Coulson's got no use for a compromised agent?
Coulson doesn't say anything.
Clint suddenly, fervently, wishes for a railing to bang his head against. He's awesome at waiting, but Coulson's patience is legendary. If they decide to wait each other out, someone's going to have to come brush the snow off them in a few months.
Coulson still doesn't say anything.
"What was it like?" he asks the night sky around them. "Being dead."
It's the only invitation Coulson's going to get.
It's the only one he needs.
"You should know." Coulson's movements are slow as he sits down next to Clint, wincing a little as he settles his weight. Clint wonders if he's going to have to help him get up again. "You've died twice on my watch."
And hadn't Natasha loved doing the CPR that second time. Clint grimaces. "Not what I meant." And you know it, he doesn't say, but it's implied.
Coulson sighs. "Boring." He pauses, considering. "Worrying. I watched you jump off at least three buildings. That has to stop."
Clint ducks his head and grins. "If my handler says so."
This is... surprisingly easy. This talking thing, sitting next to Coulson, close enough to touch if either of them shifted a little. It's surprisingly comfortable, like they just saw each other for lunch over leathery lasagne and chunky mac'n'cheese. Like they're hovering on the edge of maybe becoming friends, and nothing else has to happen between them. Like Clint didn't put his foot in his mouth and Coulson didn't almost die and Clint can get over this stupid little crush of his if he just has a little more time.
Then Coulson replies, and there's something in his voice, something dark and selfish that makes the grin slide off Clint's face. "Your handler does." And your handler will damn well make sure of it, Coulson doesn't say.
Clint swallows, tries to deflect. "Positive, sir." He tries for glib, but the words come out strained.
Coulson sighs again. He taps his fingers on the roof edge. He's nervous, Clint suddenly realizes with a start. And if his heart was beating double-time before, now it's racing like it's preparing for the Olympics.
"Barton." Coulson clears his throat and starts again. "Clint. I'm going to ask you a question. And you're going to think about it, and then you'll give me an answer because I understand there are a few things I messed up quite badly, but I recently died and I deserve a break."
"You didn't mess up," Clint says automatically. He barely resists the urge to brush his palms against his jeans.
"There's no need to coddle me."
"I'm not coddling anyone." He's Clint Barton, SHIELD agent and Avenger. He doesn't do coddling.
For the first time since he sat down, Coulson turns his head to look at Clint. "I am going to kick you off this roof if you don't shut up now."
Clint's voice is hoarse. "That would probably aggravate your injuries. Sir."
Clint looks down at the moving lights. He wants to look at Coulson, at Phil, but he doesn't think he can. There's something hot and tight clenching in his chest, burning, and his throat is dry as he rasps out, "What's the question?"
Coulson takes a slow breath. "Do you want to have dinner with me?"
For a moment, Clint feels like he can't breathe. He wants to ask, really? He wants to ask if Phil's fucking with him. He wants to ask if Phil is aware what he's getting into. He wants to ask what he's getting into. He wants to ask what made Phil change his mind, if this is about Clint or about not dying alone, if Phil has even the slightest idea how desperately Clint's missed him.
He wants to ask if Phil means in a professional capacity.
What he says, when he finds his voice, is simply, "Yeah."
There's a long pause when Clint almost, almost, looks at Phil.
"I believe I asked you to think about it," Phil says finally.
Clint shrugs. "Thought about it."
He has no words for how much he thought about it. About Phil. Maybe not about dinner, not after Phil rebuffed him, but he still wants it. Of course he still wants it. And dessert. And drinks. And Phil's voice in his ear as he falls asleep and when he wakes up again, warm and real and there, right next to him.
"Is that so?" Now Phil sounds a bit thrown, like this isn't going at all like he expected, and what, did he honestly think that Clint would say no?
Clint huffs out a disbelieving little laugh and shakes his head before he meets Phil's eyes. They're dark and a little worried and a lot tired, but they also look at Clint like he's the only solid thing around. Like he's worth hanging on to. Like he's something to rely on. And shit, does it really matter why Phil wants him now, when Clint can finally, finally have him?
"Can I ask a question?" Clint says, and there must be something in his face or his voice that makes Phil relax.
Clint tilts his head. "You have dinner yet?"
And now Phil smiles at him, relief and amusement and a whole tangle of other things Clint can't read yet plain on his face. "As a matter of fact, I haven't." He taps his fingers on the edge again. "What did you have in mind?"
"Mac'n'cheese," Clint says at once, just to see Phil make a face.
"That seems to be more punishment than I deserve," he complains, and yeah, this is good, Clint thinks happily. He can do this.
It's probably too early for kissing. He'll probably try it anyway.
He's never been good with patience, and he's waited long enough.
Clint's up a tree.
He's on a SHIELD mission, not Avengers business and while Clint wouldn't admit it out loud, he kind of likes the relative quiet. Tony's a good guy, but he needs a lot of attention and sometimes Clint has to focus on something else before he shoots the man just to shut him up. Thankfully, Phil can always tell when Clint's close to losing it, so now Clint's in some national park in China, up a tree.
It's a good tree. Scratch that, it's a fantastic tree. It's easily a hundred feet tall, with plenty of conveniently-placed branches and foliage that's dense enough to hide him, but not too dense to observe the footpaths below. He's in the upper third but below the crown, and compared to some of the places Clint's had to wait in over the years, this deserves three stars at least.
"I want to move into this tree," he says quietly. There's no reply, but Clint can imagine Phil's expression just fine. Phil, Clint was delighted to learn when they started their relationship (years ago by now, and how amazing is that?), has a hedonistic streak a mile wide when he's in private. "Guess the bed wouldn't fit, though," he adds, just to make Phil roll his eyes.
It's the truth, though. Their bed is huge. If there's one argument against moving into this tree, it's their bed. And Phil in their bed, looking debauched. And Clint with Phil in their bed, making sure debauchery happens.
He leans back against the rough bark of the trunk and smiles. He's up in the comfiest tree known to man, waiting for a SHIELD double agent to show up for an exchange of intel with one of the Mandarin's men. Somewhere below him, Li is playing tourist and ready to orchestrate Clint's back-up if he needs it (she has her own gaggle of juniors now). Clint took some stunning panorama pictures of the view earlier, with the camera he's supposed to use only to record the meeting. He'll get an earful for that.
He's looking forward to it.
"Rabbit's in sight, sir," he says when he spots O'Hare walking up the footpath. "Do you want me to narrate or are you going to wait for the pretty pictures?"
He's well out of earshot and might observe a few things they'd miss on the footage. They don't call him Hawkeye for nothing. It's Phil's call, though.
It's always been Phil's call.
His radio clicks once.
"Talk to me, Barton," Phil says, and Clint does.
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.
~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream